The Best Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Novels of 2000

  

Well, itís that time of year again, time for me to delve into my notes of the previous yearís reading and attempt to define what were the best books. Iíve actually read a higher percentage of the offerings this year, but the usual caveat still applies that I might well have overlooked something truly outstanding, or even that I read it and forgot to include it in the notes I keep. Even more germane is the simple fact that ďbestĒ is a relative term, and many of your are likely to disagree strongly with my choices. Based on my poor track record with the Hugos and Nebulas, most of you are going to disagree. So it goes.

          I will say that it was a much better than average year for science fiction, following several generally mediocre ones, a pretty average year for fantasy following a long string of similar years, and an even weaker than usual year for horror novels, although as always there were a few standouts.

          There was in particular a great deal of very fine hard science fiction this year. Ben Bova provided one of his best in Venus, the latest in his exploration of our solar system, with an industrial titan setting a high reward from any who can retrieve his older sonís body from its resting place on Venus. Geoffrey Landis describes the first successful expedition to the red planet in Mars Crossing, in which the intrepid astronauts are left with a defective return vehicle, forced to trek across the red plant to find an abandoned ship that might save some of their number. James P. Hogan portrays an Earth faced with disaster when a fragment from the Jovian system threatens to collide with the planet in Cradle of Saturn. Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter teamed up for Light of Other Days, a ďmarvelous inventionĒ story in which a means is discovered by which anyone can spy on anyone, even backward through time, without being detected. Some interesting speculation, although the characters are a bit more amenable to changing their prejudices than occurs in the real world.

          Gregory Benfordís Eater presents humanity with an ageless creature the size of a planetoid who travels from system to system, harvesting the best minds of each race to feed its group intelligence. When it issues an ultimatum, the governments of Earth must decide whether to surrender the chosen members of its population, or risk extinction by attacking the interloper. Allen Steeleís Oceanspace takes a low key but very believable look at the exploration and exploitation of our undersea resources. Most notable of all is Alastair Reynoldsí Revelation Space, a hefty, diverse, interstellar adventure involving the discovery of ancient alien artifacts on a remote world, the crew of a starship of incredible size who have slipped into a different kind of sanity, and the secrets of a discorporate alien race perhaps completely unknowable to humans. Robert Reedís Marrow also involves an oversized spaceship, and involves a different variety of secret, and it is easily his most accomplished work to date.

          For those inclined to more literary SF, Ursula K. Le Guin returned to the Hain universe after much too long an absence for the low key but immensely satisfying The Telling, the investigation of a planet which has deliberately and systematically destroyed its entire history in order to adapt to interstellar civilization. Lance Olsenís Freaknest follows the adventures of a group of talented children in a cyberpunkish but completely original future Earth. Jamil Nasirís Distance Haze deals with an investigative writer who visits a scientific establishment whose projects all have a religious connection, only to discover that some of them are having very unpredictable results.

          Most of the standard devices of the genre were well represented this year. S.M. Stirling continued his story of an island misplaced in time with On the Oceans of Eternity, exploring the past, and Roger MacBride Allen kicked off a new sequence of novels with The Depths of Time, which explores time travel in the future, blended with some first class space opera, paradoxes, and a clever mystery. Gene Wolfe provided the best other worlds adventure of the year with In Greenís Jungles, a continuation of the adventures of the settlers of a far world following the journeyís end of a generation starship.

          Jack L. Chalker provides a good mystery involving mutants with The Moreau Factor. Aliens presented new problems for humanity in Calculating God by Robert Sawyer, in which a visiting alien advises the Earth that an unknown force has been manipulating the history of both races in the past, and possibly plans to do so further in the future. Alan Dean Fosterís Dirge continues his history of the formation of the Humanx Coalition, this time with the story of a human colony wiped out by a mysterious attacker, and the ultimate alliance of humans and Thranx to destroy the enemy. The ďmysteryĒ really isnít one, but the story is no less gripping even though we know from the outset who is responsible for the massacre.

          Melissa Scott looks at the effect of technological advances on the entertainment industry in The Jazz and Brian N. Stableford tries to imagine the kind of society that might evolve if we were to achieve the gift of immortality in The Fountains of Youth. Nancy Kressís Probability Moon probes the complexities involved in studying an alien race, against the backdrop of an interstellar war of extermination between humanity and another species. Thereís a very nicely devised and resolved scientific mystery in Infinity Beach by Jack McDevitt. A space probe returns to Earth claiming failure, but years later investigators begin to suspect that they accomplished at least part of their objective, and brought back to Earth something which should have been left in space.

          Joan D. Vinge provided a neatly plotted and written police procedural set on another plant with Tangled Up in Blue and Stephen Baxter folds a handful of interesting ideas into Manifold: Time, in which an attempt to explore space through proxy has unusual consequences. Signals from space alter our civilization in Crescent City Rhapsody by Kathleen Ann Goonan, despite the governmentís efforts to suppress the new information. Stephen Gouldís Blind Waves is set in a flooded southwestern US, when rogue elements within the government decide to make the immigration policy stick, and two people stumble across evidence of the extreme measures they are taking to enforce their version of the law. And last but by no means least, the best SF novel not published as SF was The Ice Limit by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child. A meteorite is discovered buried in a remote part of Chile, and an obsessed billionaire hires a secretive organization to remove it right under the noises of the local military. Unfortunately, the object in question is a lot more than it seems. Very suspenseful, although the SF elements are peripheral until very late in the novel.

          Fantasy fiction was less exciting, but you should probably know that Iím harder to please in this area. Too much of modern fantasy fiction seems to be rewrites of other fantasy fiction. I recognize that SF devices have often become cliches as well, but most authors at least attempt to do something original with them.

          Many fantasy writers, even some of the better ones, are too satisfied with retelling another variation of the same old story. I am tired of usurpers being overthrown, evil sorcerers being defeated despite staggering advantages in the final volume, and bands of disparate heroes triumphing on their request to recover some sacred sword/gem/charm/maiden/shield/etc. That all notwithstanding, Iím not a complete fantasy grinch and I did enjoy some of the new fantasies published this year, even some of the more conventional ones.

          The two best were parts of ongoing series. George R.R. Martinís A Storm of Swords continues his epic, and cranked it up a notch. Kings die, monsters invade, villains gain some nobility, and the court politics are almost as intricate and bitter as this yearís Presidential election. Robert Jordanís Winterís Heart also stirs up plots within plots as a growing movement toward rebellion threatens further unrest in his created world. Terry Goodkindís Faith of the Fallen was also a satisfying addition to his series, although I thought it suffered a bit from the split viewpoint and a relatively slow paced plot.

          There was quite a bit of conventional fantasy this year. L.E. Modesitt continued his saga of Cyador with Scion of Cyador, not as strong as some of the earlier volumes but still worth while. Storm Constantine made a very strong showing with two very intelligent novels, Crown of Silence and Sea Dragon Heir, the only author to have two titles on my list this year (Stephen Baxter has one and a half). Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelleís joint effort, The Burning City, gets high points for originality and stage setting, but I found the plot less satisfying than in their previous collaborations. John Marcoís The Grand Design gave some new twists to the political machinations surrounding the throne, and I suspect that he will evolve into one of the more prominent fantasy writers as his skills improve and he explores fresh ground. Wheel of the Infinite by Catherine Wells also manages to rise above its familiar premise, rich in detail, characterization, and imagination.

          Dave Duncan continues to turn out fine work as well. Sky of Swords, latest and apparently last in his series about the reign of a rather self indulgent king, is a satisfying story about a rebellious princess who is accused of treason following the murder of the king by the man she was coerced into marrying. Doublecrosses abound and even though the story seemed all too familiar to me, it sucked me in completely in the early chapters and held me to the end.

          Simon R. Green returned to fantasy with a sequel to his excellent Blue Moon Rising. Beyond the Blue Moon is also the capstone to his separate Hawk and Fisher series, revealing that the two protagonists are actually lost heirs to another kingdom. And Lawrence Watt-Evans returned to the land of Ethshar for his first new novel in that setting in many years. Night of Madness reduces the land to near chaos when a bizarre event causes a significant portion of the population to suddenly develop magical powers, even though theyíve never been trained to use them and are not sanctioned by any of the other magical guilds.

          Forests of the Heart by Charles De Lint was my favorite contemporary fantasy this year. Irish ghosts have migrated to the new world, but unable to replace the Manitou of this land, they instead roam the cities without a true home. Best historical fantasy was The Fox Woman by Kij Johnson, set in ancient Japan. A dishonored aristocrat becomes romantically involved with a magical fox. Guy Gavriel Kayís Lord of Emperors has the feel of an historical, with an artisan used as a ploy by his ruler in a plot against his enemies. In Mad Merlin, J. Robert King provided a slightly new twist to the King Arthur story, with Merlin driven mad thanks to the suppressed knowledge that he is actually the incarnation of an ancient god. And I have to admit to enjoying one heroes-against-the-evil-sorcerer novel, Gate of Fire by Thomas Harlan.

          Funny fantasy also enjoyed a slight uprise this year. Terry Pratchett is always reliable, and The Truth, which concerns the adventures of a compulsively truthful newspaper reporter in Discworld is as good as most of the previous volumes. Tom Holt, rarely available in this country, provided another good jaunt with Valhalla, about a woman mistakenly sent to the afterlife of the Norse gods, and the changes she brings about when she gets there. Nick OíDonohue also returns with a darkly humorous sequel, A Gnomewrench in the Peopleworks, detailing the perils involved when making business arrangements with magical creatures who arenít particularly fond of humankind. Ricardo Pintoís The Chosen was the best first fantasy of the year, a rewardingly complex story about a boy who discovers that his father isnít quite as honorable as he thought.

          Horror fiction did not have a great year at novel length, although there were some notable exceptions. Vampires were back, although not traditional ones, most notably in Mick Farrenís Darklost, sequel to A Time of Feasting. Renquist and his followers have found a new haven, but they also face fresh danger when an ancient cult threatens to open the doorway between worlds, and the vampires have to save the human race. Richard Laymonís The Traveling Vampire Show eschews most supernatural content, although something decidedly not normal is happening when an unorthodox carnival comes to town. Their star attraction may or may not be a genuine vampire, but sheís dangerous no matter what she is. Laurell Hamiltonís most recent Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter novel was The Obsidian Butterfly, and itís far and away the best in the series. She faces a creature that flays the skin from its victim, but leaves them in a bizarre state suspended between life and death. And Brian Lumley continues his chronicles of the denizens of an alternate world of vampires with Necroscope: The Defilers.

          Tom Piccirilliís Deceased is a bizarre, sexy ghost story about a man who returns to the place where his family was butchered to confront the spirits of his dead siblings. These ghosts are tangible, however, interact with others, and are concealing a mysterious secret. Gary Braunbeck kicked off a multi-author series with In Hollow Houses, set in a bizarre alternate version of our world where all of the conspiracy theories are correct, and the government is concealing the existence of aliens and other strange phenomena. Gary Brandnerís Rot is a bit more conventional, but this story of a raped woman who is raised from the dead and who then sets out to track down her attackers is filled with grisly scenes and genuine suspense.

          Perhaps the most original concept for a horror novel was Indigo by Graham Joyce, in which the search for a color no one can quite describe has very unfortunate consequences for the seekers. Bentley Little does his usual fine job with the bizarre and haunting The Walking.

          Best single author collection of the year is easily Black Evening by David Morrell, with Ghosts and Grisly Things by Ramsey Campbell providing a very close runner up. Lastly, there were several media tie-ins this year, least notably the juvenile Charmed novels. Those linked to Buffy the Vampire Slayer continue to be more interesting and one, Pretty Maids All in a Row by Christopher Golden, was genuinely clever and entertaining. Also worth noting is Shadows Bend by David Barbour and Richard Raleigh, in which H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard team up to battle a Cthulhuvian menace. Lots of fun but the deliberately flowery prose went on a little too long.

          So what was the best this year? Thereís no contest in science fiction as far as Iím concerned. Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds is one of the best reads Iíve had in years, and only the fact that it wonít have a US edition in time makes it an unlikely Hugo winner.

          Best first SF novel was The Midnight Robber by Nalo Hopkinson, a blend of Caribbean legend with the future, if you donít consider it fantasy. If you do, then the best is S.L. Viehlís Stardoc, an entertaining and often clever space adventure.

          The best fantasy was A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin, easily distancing itself from the rest of the pack.

          In horror, Iíd award a tie between The Obsidian Butterfly and Darklost, oddly enough both parts of series, an unusual situation in the horror genre.

          The overall best goes to Revelation Space because the Martin isnít a complete novel in itself, although itís easily as well written. Given its lack of availability to most US readers, I doubt Revelation Space will win the Hugo this year (although perhaps next year), so my bet would be placed on Eater by Gregory Benford to cop the award. And once again Tor books dominates the final list, although Del Rey, Avon, and Roc in particular made stronger than usual showings.

 

The Best Books of The Year 2000

The Depths of Time by Roger MacBride Allen (Bantam); Shadows Bend by David Barbour & Richard Raleigh (Ace); Manifold: Time by Stephen Baxter (Del Rey); Eater by Gregory Benford (Avon, Orbit); Venus by Ben Bova (Tor); Rot by Gary Brandner (CD Publications); In Hollow Houses by Gary Braunbeck (Wizards of the Coast); Ghosts and Grisly Things by Ramsey Campbell (Tor); The Moreau Factor by Jack L. Chalker (Del Rey); Light of Other Days by Arthur C. Clarke & Stephen Baxter (Tor); Crown of Silence by Storm Constantine (Tor, Gollancz); Sea Dragon Heir by Storm Constantine (Tor, Millennium); Forests of the Heart by Charles De Lint (Tor); Sky of Swords by Dave Duncan (Avon Eos); Darklost by Mick Farren (Tor); Dirge by Alan Dean Foster (Del Rey); Pretty Maids All in a Row by Christopher Golden (Pocket); Faith of the Fallen by Terry Goodkind (Tor, Gollancz); Crescent City Rhapsody by Kathleen Ann Goonan (Avon Eos, Millennium); Blind Waves by Stephen Gould (Tor); Beyond the Blue Moon by Simon R. Green (Gollancz); The Obsidian Butterfly by Laurell Hamilton (Ace); Gate of Fire by Thomas Harlan (Tor); Cradle of Saturn by James P. Hogan (Baen); Valhalla by Tom Holt (Orbit); The Midnight Robber by Nalo Hopkinson (Aspect); The Fox Woman by Kij Johnson (Tor); Winterís Heart by Robert Jordan (Tor); Indigo by Graham Joyce (Tor); Lord of Emperors by Guy Gavriel Kay (Harper, Earthlight); Mad Merlin by J. Robert King (Tor); Probability Moon by Nancy Kress (Tor); Mars Crossing by Geoffrey Landis (Tor); The Traveling Vampire Show by Richard Laymon (CD Publications); The Telling by Ursula K. Le Guin (Harcourt); The Walking Bentley Little (Signet); Necroscope: The Defilers by Brian Lumley (Tor); The Grand Design by John Marco (Bantam, Gollancz); A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin (Bantam); Infinity Beach by Jack McDevitt (Harper); Scion of Cyador by L.E. Modesitt Jr. (Tor); Black Evening by David Morrell (CD Publications); Distance Haze by Jamil Nasir (Bantam); The Burning City by Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle (Pocket); A Gnomewrench in the Peopleworks by Nick OíDonohue (Ace); Freaknest by Lance Olsen (Wordcraft of Oregon); Deceased by Tom Piccirilli (Leisure); The Chosen by Ricardo Pinto (Tor); The Truth by Terry Pratchett (Harper); The Ice Limit by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child (Warner); Marrow by Robert Reed (Tor); Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds (Gollancz); Calculating God by Robert J. Sawyer (Tor); The Jazz by Melissa Scott (Tor); The Fountains of Youth by Brian N. Stableford (Tor); Oceanspace by Allen Steele (Ace); On the Oceans of Eternity by S.M. Stirling (Roc); Stardoc by S.L. Viehl (Roc); Tangled Up in Blue by Joan D. Vinge (Tor); Night of Madness by Lawrence Watt-Evans (Tor); Wheel of the Infinite by Catherine Wells (Avon Eos); In Greenís Jungles by Gene Wolfe (Tor).